I allways find it a bit weird that when we buy a car, we take it for a test drive.
With buying a camera, especially a DSLR - its very difficult to "take it for a test drive"...yet in some cases these can cost more than a car.
As such we pretty much have to rely on experiences from others and the look and feel of the thing in the shop.
I havent owned lots of cameras and i havent had much of a play with higher end cameras to really feel or notice the difference. What i have had is a slow evolution of my own ability and experience in dealing with digital cameras from cheap point and shoots to my first DSLR.
Taking the jump to a DSLR is a little daunting and from my own experiences i looked to my close freinds and the cameras they had. I played with them and asked some questions and took some shots. i read a lot of reviews !
In the end i came to some basic conclusions.
1) my budget is not huge
2) i dont have a lot of experience with DSLR
3) this is a step up from p&s but im not looking at getting published in a magazine or taking wedding photos etc
4) im interested in knowing a little more about photography and want a little more control on the shots i take.
this all leads to the point that im looking at entry level DSLR and for the masses with a lot of support and reference material thats easy to use.
This all led me to the camps of Canon and Nikon.
Very similar in every way..in the end i went with a canon 300D as opposed to the Nikon equivilent.
I managed to find a great deal on a bundle where the camera came with the boxed 18-55 lens plus a 70-300mm telescopic lens (i think).
After a few months i upgraded the boxed standard lens (which actually was quite good !) with a few trial and error cheap lenses as my budget dictated and managed to save up for a relatively decent canon EFS 17-85 IS USM and a canon 75-300 IS USM.
I used the D300 up until this year when i finally replaced it with a an upgrade. Not a huge one but in terms of technology it may be is..The 550D. I havent changed the lenses or found it necessary to buy another lens...yet..
I like to think i take better than average photos every now and then and my freinds like the photos i take. If i get a good shot then its really the production and editing of the photo that make it something different.
The camera alone will not make you the next lord lichfield. You will need to develo pyour skills and eye for it.
So to answer your questions:
Yes the entry level DSLR's justify their price tag - especially if you can find a camera+lens bundle deal.
In my opinion 2 lenses have covered most of the range of photography i take, the 18-55 that comes with the cameras (the canon in my example) is a great start and is not a bad lens. You can upgrade over time. The scary part is when you really start spending more money on lenses than you did on the camera ! My current EFS 17-85 lens pretty much lives on my camera and i would say does around 90% of all my shots.
Whilst there are other cameras out there that cost more or less the market leaders are that for a reason. Ease of use, good support, plenty of reference material and proven track record.
Complete beginners can still take incredible photos with the most basic of cameras and i still have a sub £200 compact point and shoot for just throwing in my pocket when i walk the dog, go play with the kids or around the house etc.
I also bought my first DSLR from Jessops
since then i have shopped around a little more but you are not alone and you are in the same place a lot of people find themselves.
My final note is that if you find the DSLR thing a little too daunting but want something more than a sub £200 compact then there are a number of superb alternatives..but thats another mine field.
Good luck. Let us know how you get on and more importantly enjoy it and post some of your pics here !
apologies for the wall of text.
Canon 550D, Canon EFS 17-85 IS USM, Canon EF 75-300 IS USM, Canon EFS 10-22mm USM, Canon EF35mm F2.
Got some of the gear but really still no idea...